Researcher at the lab bench

Act now to protect post-Brexit research, say scientists

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Leading figures in science, technology and engineering have warned the government that it must act with urgency and clarity to protect British research and innovation as the UK negotiates its withdrawal from the EU. However, the Minister for Science says that participation in European research must not “come at any price”.

Representatives congregated at the House of Commons Science & Technology Committee’s "Brexit: Science and Innovation Summit" in London to discuss how the government should move ahead with Brexit negotiations while protecting research and innovation, and exploiting possible opportunities ahead.

The discussion will feed into the committee’s recommendations to the government as it begins the second phase of Brexit negotiations with Brussels.

Norman Lamb, chair of the committee and Liberal Democrat MP, opened the summit by warning against “complacency”; the UK’s excellent reputation for research is not necessarily “here to stay”, he said. Lamb told attendees that he felt a sense of “urgency” as research projects are being shaped without certainty about the future of funding, regulatory frameworks and personnel.

This is particularly precarious given the approaching end of the current European research and innovation funding framework (Horizon 2020).

Numerous speakers emphasised the vital importance of collaboration in fundamental research, applied research, tech transfer, engineering, medicine and industry. Some speakers criticised government figures for their “uncertainty” and “negative messaging” around immigration, arguing that this had already proved “detrimental”, and that the UK must actively work to attract and retain in-demand researchers.

“In my opinion, mobility is the single most important thing in science,” said Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, President of the Royal Society and a Nobel Laureate. Describing how science has thrived on mobility, Ramakrishnan spoke about his former workplace, the Laboratory of Molecular Biology at the University of Cambridge, whose first three directors were immigrants, and whose upcoming director will also be a highly in-demand foreign scientist.

So many great scientists and technologists have come to Britain over the years, he said, because it has been perceived as open and meritocratic. This openness allows the rapid exchange of ideas and expertise; this is how a country reaches – and stays at – the cutting edge.

“If you want to be the best in the world you have to recruit the best in the world. Sports teams know this […] and it’s the same in science”, he said.

Niall Dickson, chief executive of the NHS Foundation, joined other speakers in warning that Britain would struggle to keep attracting the best researchers and innovators in the world if they continued to feel unwelcome.

“On immigration, we’ve always gone on the principle of “how do we keep people out”, and now we’ve really got to turn that on its head,” Dickson said, adding that while UK institutions should not forget growing domestic talent, the UK will always be dependent on migrants. There is a danger that the UK talks too much about its own pre-eminence, he suggested, but “Europe will survive very well without us.”

Naomi Weir, deputy director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, said that while EU nationals can come to the UK to work, there is evidence that they are being put off by lingering uncertainty and perceived hostility. Attendees – including the President and Provost of UCL and the President of the Society of Spanish Researchers in the UK – shared statistics and stories suggesting that European researchers are less and less willing to engage with British research.

Speakers suggested how a new, flexible immigration framework could be built to minimise the negative impact of Brexit on UK research and innovation. This could make allowances for researchers who are required to leave the country for long periods of time to work elsewhere, or for trusted employers to have the right to employ anyone valuable, regardless of their citizenship.

Professor Julia Buckingham, treasurer of Universities UK and Vice-Chancellor of Brunel University, added that research and innovation networks within Europe are not just “chat shops”, but networks of international activity which are “in danger” of being destroyed. Buckingham demanded transparency of the government, asking whether Britain was really “open for business”, and what this one-liner really means.

Representing the government was Sam Gyimah, who was appointed Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation just six weeks ago. Gyimah acknowledged the necessity of international collaboration in science and technology, commenting that tackling issues such as caring for an ageing population and shaping the future of transport are “global challenges”.

Gyimah said that he was “clear” that the UK should participate with European research and innovation programmes, although this participation should not “come at any price”, and should include researchers from outside the EU.

Meanwhile, George Freeman, former Minister for Life Sciences and Conservative MP, made a case for maintaining deep research collaborations with European colleagues while using Brexit as an opportunity to develop a more streamlined British framework for tech transfer which could allow scientific discoveries to be exploited in new technologies with a worldwide reach.

Eminent figures in engineering spoke in defence of European collaboration, including Professor Sir Robert Mair, President of the Institution of Civil Engineers, and Professor Geoffrey Maitland, former president of the Institution of Chemical Engineers.

“The engineering profession believes seeking the closest possible association with [EU funding schemes] will bring benefits to engineering in the UK. It’s not all about the funding, it’s also about the access to knowledge, people, ideas and facilities,” said Maitland.

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